Maalula, an enchanting town in Syria, is famous for its breathtaking natural beauty as it sits nestled amidst the slopes of a rocky mountain canyon. What distinguishes Maalula is its Christian community that speaks Aramaic, making it one of the few remaining in the Middle East. The town has emerged as a focal point for preserving and revitalizing the Aramaic language. The dialect spoken here is considered the closest surviving variant to the language used in first century Palestine, making it closely associated with the language of Jesus. While the language has evolved over time due to the town’s geographical isolation, it continues to hold significance for studies in linguistic anthropology. Nearby villages such as Jaba’din and Bakhaa also have residents who speak Aramaic.
Maalula boasts a rich history that traces back to the Roman era, evident from the remains of a pagan temple that was repurposed into a church. The area has also yielded Byzantine artefacts. Visitors to Maalula have several attractions to explore. In the northern part of the town, Deir Mar Taqla, a Greek Orthodox women’s monastery dedicated to Saint Taqla (Thecla), can be found. According to tradition, she was a disciple of Saint Paul the Apostle and played a significant role in spreading his teachings among women, particularly emphasizing the importance of chastity. Although there is no archaeological evidence substantiating this claim, the cave chapel above the modern church and monastery complex is believed to be her burial place, attracting religious pilgrims.
To the north of this monastery, a small ravine leads to the hills overlooking the town, where one can discover modest rock-cut tombs dating back to the earliest periods of settlement. Following the paved road westward, visitors will arrive at Deir Mar Sarkis, a Greek Catholic monastery of great archaeological importance in Maalula. The church, situated at the southern end of the monastery, has foundations dating back to a Roman-era pagan temple, while other architectural elements date from the fifth and sixth centuries. Saint Sarkis (Sergius) and his companion Bacchus were highly revered during the Byzantine period, particularly in the Syrian desert regions.
Maalula is also home to several other churches, and strolling through the maze-like alleyways of the older residential districts offers a rewarding experience. For the adventurous, undertaking a challenging climb up the hill southwest of Maalula provides magnificent views of the town. In the town centre and near the entrance to Deir Mar Taqla, there are modest cafes and shops to explore.
Maalula commemorates three significant festivals, namely the Holy Cross Festival held on September 14th, the Festival of Mar Takla on September 22nd, and the festival of Mar Sarkis on October 7th. People from various parts of the country, both Christians and Muslims, gather in Maalula to actively participate in these remarkable celebrations.
Regrettably, during the war, Maalula suffered significant damage, including the destruction of its historic churches, instances of theft, and acts of vandalism.
Despite the challenges, Maalula remains a significant destination for those interested in history, religion, and linguistic heritage. Its ancient churches, religious traditions, and the use of Aramaic make it a captivating place for visitors seeking a glimpse into the region’s rich cultural and religious tapestry.